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Chile: miners alive but rescue may be months away

Chile's miners are alive, all 33 of them, after 17 days trapped in a collapsed mine. "Today all of Chile is crying with excitement and joy," President Sebastian Pinera said. But it may be until Christmas before the trapped miners can be rescued.

By Mauricio CuervasAssociated Press / August 23, 2010

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera holds up a plastic bag containing a message, from Chile miners trapped in a collapsed mine, that reads in Spanish "We are ok in the shelter, the 33 miners" in Copiapo, Chile, Sunday Aug. 22, 2010. The miners have been trapped below the surface of the mine since the main access collapsed on Aug. 5 due to tons of falling rock.

AP/Hector Retamal

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COPIAPO, Chile

For 33 men found alive after 17 days trapped deep in a copper and gold mine, the toughest challenge now may be preserving their sanity during the months it may take to carve a tunnel big enough for them to get out.

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Chileans were euphoric Sunday after a narrow drill broke through 2,257 feet (688 meters) of solid rock to reach an emergency refuge where the miners had gathered. The trapped men quickly tied two notes to the end of a probe that rescuers pulled to the surface, announcing in big red letters: "All 33 of us are fine in the shelter."

"Today all of Chile is crying with excitement and joy," President Sebastian Pinera said at the mine.

And where many were beginning to give up hope, the scene above ground became a celebration Sunday night, with a barbecue for the miners' families, roving musicians, lit candles and Chilean flags making the barren landscape seem festive.

IN PICTURES: Chile mine collapse

But rescuers said it could take as long as four months ó until around Christmas ó to carve a second shaft some 27 inches (68 centimeters) in diameter, wide enough for the miners to be pulled up one by one.

The men already have been trapped underground longer than all but a few miners rescued in recent history. Last year, three miners survived 25 days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China, and two miners in northeastern China were rescued after 23 days in 1983. Few other rescues have taken more than two weeks.

The miners' survival after 17 days is very unusual, but since they've made it this far, they should emerge physically fine, said Davitt McAteer, who was assistant secretary for mine safety and health at the U.S. Labor Department under President Bill Clinton.
"The health risks in a copper and gold mine are pretty small if you have air, food and water," McAteer said.

Still, he said the stress of being trapped underground for a long period of time can be significant.
"There is a psychological pattern there that we've looked at," McAteer said. But "they've established communication with the guys; there are people who can talk them through that."

The hole already drilled will be used to send down small capsules containing food, water and oxygen if necessary, and sound and video equipment so the miners can better communicate with loved ones and rescuers. That two-way communication may be key to keeping them thinking positive.

A video camera lowered down the probe shaft Sunday showed some of the miners, stripped to the waist in the underground heat, waving happily. But they weren't able to establish audio contact, Pinera said.

"I saw eight or nine of them. They were waving their hands. They got close to the camera and we could see their eyes, their joy," the president said.
The miners seemed to be aware that their rescue may take a long time, according to one of them, Mario Gomez, perhaps the eldest of the trapped men at 63, who wrote a note to his wife.

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